Monday, January 28, 2008

On not eating meat

I am not the preachy sort of vegetarian. If asked, I'll explain the humanitarian and ecological reasons behind my decision to stop eating meat nearly six years ago. I'll also tell you that I found it surprisingly easy to do, despite my previous reputation as a full-blooded carnivore. But I won't try to guilt-trip anyone (OK, maybe just in fun, among friends), or object to others eating meat in my presence, or pretend to be disgusted. I always tell dinner hosts that I'm happy to eat around a main course of flesh, and when travelling in vegetarian-unfriendly parts of the world I've managed to subsist for days, more or less cheerfully, on repetitive meals of plain rice and sliced tomatoes.

But this article by Mark Bittman in yesterday's New York Times summarises so succinctly the good reasons to stop eating meat--or at least reduce the amount one eats--that I can't resist pointing to it. I encourage those of my carnivore readers who worry (as I do) about global hunger and malnutrition, disappearing rainforests, global warming, water pollution, and animal suffering to read it and consider how hard or how easy it might be to go vegetarian even one day a week, and the possible good it might do.
No answers, no fix, no plan....

The time has come for a reckoning. Let the slaying of the Lusignan 11 marshal all of our efforts. It is also time for the government, in particular the President and the Minister of Home Affairs to drop the pretence. The security situation is not under control. Within five hours there were two chilling attacks. The country's police headquarters in the capital came under unanswered gunfire and hours later 11 persons were slaughtered on the East Coast with the police putting in their usual late appearance. Anytime 20 to 25 men can storm a village and kill with impunity it rips to shred the pantomimes and fairy tales about crime being reasonably under control. It is a deception of magnificent proportions and has been routinely conjured up by President Jagdeo and his administrations.

The President and his administration have no answers on crime, have no fix on what is happening and have no plan to implement. President Jagdeo must take personal responsibility for this situation. With nearly a decade of increasingly autocratic rule he has failed to conquer crime and has caused a worsening of the situation by not tackling major menaces such as the drug cartels, narco-terrorism and money laundering. He has failed to launch adequate investigations of shocking crimes such as the assassination of one of his own ministers, the mayhem and brutality inflicted on East Coast communities, the unsolved murders of dozens of men, the reign of the death squads and the possible involvement of one of his ministers with the death squads. Notwithstanding this he quite opportunistically announced a major probe following the discovery of two weapons alleged to be linked to the PNC from the 1970s. Exceedingly strange.

What is now in the government's game plan is anyone's guess. The plodding citizen's security initiative and the still inchoate British anti-crime plan promise much but have not yet delivered. There has been much prating about the crimestoppers programme but no stopping of crime and the so-called drug master plan is being mastered by the cocaine barons and their minions.

More radical options should be contemplated and which options have been urged for at least the last 15 years i.e. recourse to crime fighters from professional bodies such as Scotland Yard and a thorough shake-up of the police and the installation of new leadership.

--From the editorial in today's Stabroek News.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Heart of darkness

The massacre of eleven men, women, and children in Lusignan--in the middle of the night, while most of them were in their beds--is the kind of horrific event that newspaper reports describe as "senseless". They were gunned down, it seems, on the orders of Rondell Rawlins, "Guyana's number 1 fugitive", a notorious gang leader already wanted for the 2006 murder of agriculture minister Satyadeow Sawh and others. As the Stabroek News succinctly puts it:

The assault on the community comes in the wake of reports from the police that ... Rawlins had contacted ranks at the Criminal Investigation Department headquarters on Wednesday threatening to create mayhem if his alleged child mother--Tenisha Morgan who went missing since Friday last was not returned safely. Stabroek News was told that the gunmen in Buxton are of the view that the pregnant teenager was abducted in an effort to get at Rawlins, who is believed to be the leader of the Buxton/Agricola criminal gang.

So a squad of heavily armed men dressed in black descended on Lusignan and went house to house shooting everyone they found, including terrified children clinging to their mothers.

But in a profoundly revolting way, the Lusignan murders were not senseless at all. They are the logical next step in the civil war raging in Guyana, no less a war for not being recognised by the rest of the world. By Caribbean standards, Guyana has long been a specially murderous place, and one of the hardest things for outsiders like me to understand is how this tendency towards violence can be squared with the gentleness and hospitality of most ordinary Guyanese. But the killings of past decades were not like this. Assassinations of political activists, yes; reprisals against individuals or communities; or old-fashioned stab-and-grab robbery-murders. But the people of Lusignan were not opponents of the Rawlins gang in any conventional sense, and robbery was not the motive. This is something new for Guyana: a quick, easy civilian massacre as a simple demonstration of power. I don't believe, and I suspect most Guyanese don't believe, that the "authorities"--an ironic word to use here--could have prevented the massacre even if they knew it was going to happen. This could well be the tipping point in the war between an encreasingly enfeebled government and an increasingly well-armed and confident criminocracy.

Caught in the middle--no longer merely imperilled by stray bullets, but directly targeted--are the people of Guyana and what bureaucrats like to call "civil society": impoverished, demoralised, terrified. Almost every smart, ambitious Guyanese who can manage it leaves. That's why there are more Guyanese in the New York City metropolitan area than in Guyana. That's why there are so many Guyanese in Toronto, London, Barbados, Trinidad--anywhere they can escape to. And the bright, ambitious Guyanese who have not yet escaped--those whose idealism or patriotism keeps them in their homeland, those who have not yet been lucky enough to get a green card--will never again be numerous enough to constitute the critical mass of educated, civic-minded citizens that every society requires to survive.

I am one quarter Guyanese--my mother's father was born there. I have friends there. I have spent enough time in Guyana to feel a real attachment to certain places, certain ideas, certain hopes. I am trying today to remember what those hopes might be. Instead I feel--I imagine most Guyanese today are feeling--a horrible, sickening despair. I have felt it before--reading about the Sawh murders, the attack on the Kaieteur News workers in August 2006, and various other bloody acts. I have felt it on the streets of Georgetown, so many times, so that as much as I've enjoyed my visits there, I always leave deeply depressed. I've never felt so utterly hopeless about Guyana as I do today, and it weighs all the heavier in this prolonged season of hopelessness about my own country, my own society.

I am afraid Guyana is beyond saving. Afraid not in the rhetorical sense--"I'm afraid it looks like rain"--but in the literal, visceral sense.

Maybe nature will intervene, and some vast disaster, compounded by grossly inadequate emergency services, will inundate the narrow coastal strip, decimate the population, and trigger a humanitarian response from the world.

Maybe someone, somehow, will find natural gas off the coast in undisputed waters; American, British, and Canadian commercial interests will move in, and--what? Our natural gas seems to be leading Trinidad and Tobago down the path to perdition. How could it be any different for Guyana?

Maybe no one will ever find oil or gas, and the Americans and the British will continue to do, essentially, nothing helpful (despite the fact that so many of Guyana's problems today can be traced directly back to the political destabilisation wilfully effected by the British and American governments in the fifteen years before Guyana's independence in 1966, in the name of anti-communism). Yes, the ambassadors in Georgetown said all the right things yesterday, but the new EU trade deal will hit Guyana harder than any other Caribbean territory, foreign "aid" will never make up the deficit, and it always comes with strings attached. How many of Guyana's aid packages require that the government hire foreign consultants to staff the ministries--foreigners who get paid relatively huge salaries, live in Georgetown's best neighbourhoods, and are airlifted out after their two-year tours-of-duty; while possibly qualified Guyanese who might be filling those same roles consequently have even fewer possibilities for employment, and hence fill out their green card applications all the speedier? Yes, when I go to Guyana I too am a foreigner. Yes, there are decent, concerned, dedicated women and men among the expat squads who really do want Guyana to be a viable state, who really do want to help. Yes, the alternative to this kind of "aid" might be an even more rapid and bloody social collapse. But it must be a crisis of some kind when a country's most able citizens flee, never to return, while civil infrastructure is increasingly supported by foreigners on short-term contracts.

So maybe it will be one of Guyana's neighbours that finally, decisively, steps in. No Caricom state has the willpower to do it, and only one--Trinidad and Tobago--might have the financial resources, but the Manning government is too busy failing to check the rise of our own criminocracy. That leaves Guyana's neighbours to the west and south. In that case, pray it is not Venezuela but Brazil that finally acts, and pray it is not an invasion but a negotiated political deal--a massive security presence plus massive infrastructural investment in return for Georgetown or Parika becoming Brazil's northernmost port.

And if there is no external intervention, either from nature or from a foreign power? The balance of power will continue to shift from elected government to narco-criminocracy, and it is only a matter of time until the state fragments and thousands more defenseless Guyanese are slaughtered.

Someone, anyone, tell me I'm wrong. Please.

And tell me what to do.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Inside the little house ...

la fantasie interior 4

... at 43 Norfolk Street ...

Friday, January 25, 2008

"The bottom line in the road"

For years now, most "Trinidad" Carnival costumes have been made in China and shipped complete to Trinidad in the very cardboard box you're handed when you reach the mas point of sale. (You can't in conscience call these retail outlets "mas camps".) All the bands do is write your name in felt pen on the box and hand it to you-and if we could read Chinese characters, they wouldn't do even that, but would just take your cash. And if there's more than TT$20 worth of merchandise in your hands after the handover-including the firetrucking cardboard box-the bandleaders are robbing themselves, just robbing themselves!...

In that context, there really need be no debate about whether Carnival should be moved since it is all but irrelevant to itself and could take place on any day of the year. Or none. People foolish enough to believe Carnival still has anything to do with harnessing a people's creativity and releasing their love for life and one another are few and can safely be dismissed, like the Rights Action Group smelter protestors who will walk and whine from the NEC HQ to Pranz Gardens tomorrow. (Call Priya 328-4153.)

Trinidad is no longer the Land of the Hummingbird but the Land of the Cash Cow.... In the new Trinidad Carnival, the only thing that need be considered is not the bottom in the road but the bottom line in the road; and the empty chanting that has replaced Trinidadian music is the plainest illustration of that.

-- B.C. comes in swinging.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

La Fantasie on Norfolk Street

la fantasie announcement

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

18 months, 2 weeks, 5 days

4 July, 2006: first meeting to discuss new (completely re-transcribed, expanded, re-annotated) edition of V.S. Naipaul's early family correspondence

28 November, 2006: signed contract

23 January, 2007: first of three days at the Naipaul archive, McFarlin Library, University of Tulsa

23 January, 2008: emailed finished manuscript (249 letters, 273 pp, approx. 130,000 wds) to publisher


(Back to "Imaginary Roads"....)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Carnival is over

So this is how it ends: with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a meeting of "stakeholders". This is the logical and utterly depressing conclusion of Carnival's mercenary debasement over the last two decades: representatives of Pan Trinbago, TUCO, the NCBA, and the NCDF want to "set Carnival to a permanent fixed date in April" because "Carnival is now an industry and like any other it needs regulating". These are the same people who have cut Carnival off from its community roots in the name of corporate sponsorship, pushed spectators off the streets and corralled masqueraders behind cordons in the name of security, suffocated real creativity in the name of profit margins, and are hell-bent on making Carnival the preserve of tourists and the comfortable middle class. Now they want to efface Carnival's ritual and historical roots in the name of convenience and efficiency, just as the PNM culture ministry effaced the Savannah barbergreen.

Minshall said it already: This Is Hell.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On being restless

... variety of actions, objects, air, places, are excellent good in this infirmity and all others, good for man, good for beast.... peregrination charms our senses with such unspeakable and sweet variety that some count him unhappy that never travelled, and pity his case that from the cradle to his old age beholds the same still; still, still the same, the same....

--Thomas Browne, from The Anatomy of Melancholy, 2nd part., sec. 2


Consulting maps, assembling charts, drawing calendars; making lists of border towns, searching out accomplices' addresses; phrasebooks, timetables, gazetteers; a milky blue lake set among mountains; anthills along a red earth road; a river that bounds the known world....

"From here," he said, waving across the rice paddies, "It is straight to Argentina."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Target: TSTT

Take cover, Georgia is on the warpath....

Monday, January 07, 2008

Laying plans

Aha: so I suspected.
The maps are blank.
Librarians have sat up through the night
erasing. Ants have been at work.
The border guards are keen on confiscation,
their messrooms are papered with pages from travellers' journals.
(A.: Am I the only one not worried?)
"Presentando Nicholas. Show him a good time,
if you know what I"--wink to the barman--"mean."
"I can be a good help for him."
"Everyone at least keeps three or four passports.
You better too."
(A.: I am undecided--malaria pills?)

Friday, January 04, 2008

A year's reading

My two or three longtime readers may recall that for five years running (2002-06) I engaged in a semi-serious little exercise called the Nicholas Laughlin Book Awards (see appropriate links in the sidebar to the right), in which I listed what I thought were the best Caribbean books of the preceding twelvemonth, always accompanied by profuse caveats. Were I to keep up the tradition, I'd be announcing the 2007 version of the NLBAs just about now. Instead, I've sort of stolen my own thunder, over at Antilles--where, a few days ago, I posted the names of the 2007 CRB books of the year, as collectively chosen by the magazine's editors.

Everyone else does year-end lists, I thought, so why not us? So I asked the CRB's contributing editors what they thought were the outstanding Caribbean books of the year and collated the results--no one of us can read everything, but collectively I hope we managed not to miss any truly remarkable new titles. There were nine books on the final list: two novels, a collection of short stories, two collections of poems, two memoirs, and (intriguingly) two books on art history. They were written by two Jamaicans, a Bahamian, a St. Lucian, a Grenadian who lives in the US, a Trinidadian, a Dominican-American, a Haitian-American, and a team based at Yale. One of our rules of thumb was that all the books on the list must be of interest to general readers across the Caribbean--thus excluding scholarly books (however excellent) relevant only to specialists. Two of the books--the art history titles--are by academics and published by university presses, but both are accessibly written and have much to offer those of us outside the field who happen to be interested in what visual documents can tell us about Caribbean history and culture.

These nine were the standouts--you may as well read the list before you continue here--but of course they weren't the only noteworthy books of 2007. Editing the CRB means that I receive and skim through perhaps 150 books a year. About sixty of these get despatched to reviewers, and a few dozen more are "noticed" in our "Also noted" column. I simply don't have the time to read as many of these new titles as I'd like--who does?--but a good few make it into my own personal "to read" pile. The new Caribbean books I've enjoyed reading or have put aside for reading in due course include:

- Sharon Leach's book of stories What You Can't Tell Him, one of the year's nice surprises; life in contemporary Kingston as lived by a series of middle-class women trying to balance career, romance, and sanity, and figure out what success means. Someone described the book to me as "Sex in the City, but Jamaican", but that's not really apt--these stories are too melancholy, clear-eyed, truthful.

- V.S. Naipaul's book of linked essays A Writer's People--always interesting, always a must-read, but frustratingly self-involved, like so much recent Naipaul. It won't ever be a favourite, but it did send me back to his earlier work. (I think I was thoroughly over-Naipauled in 2007.)

- New Caribbean Poetry, the anthology edited by Kei Miller, featuring poems by eight younger poets from across the region, including a couple who were completely new to me, and whose work I'll be following carefully from now on.

- Raymond Ramcharitar's first book of poems, American Fall, which I'm glad and relieved has finally been published. I'm even more interested to read whatever he writes next. (Raymond is no fan of the CRB, as anyone who reads his now-hibernating blog already knows; I agree with him about many things, disagree about many more; but he's an often brilliant writer and one of the most intriguing public intellectuals--if such a term has any currency here--Trinidad has produced in a generation.)

- Also Kwame Dawes's memoir A Far Cry from Plymouth Rock; Anthony Jospeh's long prose-poem The African Origins of UFOs, which I heard him read from in August; and Meiling, an elegant, understated biography by Judy Raymond. Madison Smartt Bell's biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture is a to-read. Three art books I'm pleased to have on my shelf: the catalogue of Infinite Island; The Storyteller, a concise retrospective of Roberta Stoddart's career; and Cuba Avant-Garde, the catalogue of an exhibition of contemporary Cuban art from the collection of Howard and Patricia Farber.

What am I looking forward to in 2008? New novels by Marlon James and Kei Miller; Patrick French's biography of Naipaul; Edward Baugh's biography of Frank Collymore; a new book of poems by Vahni Capildeo; Ian McDonald's Selected Poems; a young adult novel by Lisa Allen-Agostini; Anu Lakhan's book on Trinidad street food. (Also, frankly, my own new edition of Naipaul's early family correspondence.)

What was my great belated discovery in 2007? The work of Alejo Carpentier, especially Explosion in a Cathedral and The Lost Steps. (Thanks to my friend Anne Walmsley for inadvertently encouraging me to pluck from the shelf my long-ignored copy of the former.)

What were the highlights of my non-Caribbean reading last year? I seem to read fewer and fewer new books. Michael Chabon is one of my favourite living writers and I felt I'd been waiting forever for his new novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union (which sent me back to re-read his three earlier novels). I can't believe I waited so long to read The Road to Oxiana, which is now one of my touchstones--and why are the rest of Robert Byron's books out of print? After years of resisting the charms of Gabriel García Márquez, I finally gave in. I continue to delve into obscurer aspects of the history and landscape of Guyana, and was arrested some months back by Graham Burnett's brilliant Masters of All They Surveyed, a study of nineteenth-century surveying, map-making, boundary-drawing, and Robert Schomburgk. I spent the last days of the waning year in the agreeable company of Jan Morris. At Marlon James's insistence, I at last read Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, and was glad I did.

Concise version?

Book of the year, Caribbean, new: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

Book of the year, non-Caribbean, new: The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon

Book of the year, Caribbean, non-new: Explosion in a Cathedral, by Alejo Carpentier

Book of the year, non-Caribbean, non-new: The Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron

Writer of the year: Robert Byron.

On! on!